Friday, July 30, 2010


Free-form Friday

I have a habit (some would say a bad one) of supplying plausible definitions when someone mangles a word.

Here are a few for your general edification.

Arbistrery - an ecumenical monastery

Asselleration - the process of speeding up the sales process

Degregation - a group of people, like a church, that tends to have a less than beneficial effect on its members.

Exspecially - something that used to be special

Unobstrusive - clean and helpful information in the background

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Medievaloid Clichés and Tropes

Reading thuRsday

I recently read The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones.

Kate Nepveu, writing at, described it as, "an affectionate parody of what rec.arts.sf. called Extruded Fantasy Product, generically-medievaloid epic fantasy that is full of clichés and unexamined worldbuilding tropes"

I found the guide both funny and sad. Funny because Diana Wynne Jones nailed many of the conceits of high fantasy and, by recasting them in generic terms, exposed their latent silliness. Sad because I spent a lot of time in worlds of "medievaloid epic fantasy" as a young person and came away from the tough guide with the melancholy feeling that I'll never be able to go back to Fantasyland.

Continuing the theme of me-too vs. something new, I want to raise the question of whether some settings, like mines, have shallower veins of potential stories than others.

The orthodox answer is that there's always room for stories that are fresh.

The north-eastern U.S. was called "the burned-over district" in the early 19th Century after a series of religious revivals left the people there mostly tired of the whole business. In a similar vein*, lots of paper has been devoted to tales of swords and sorcery--so much so that it's no longer clear how the setting can help make the story unique. Put another way, given a story you want to tell, why does it have to be in that particular setting?

Tolkien gave The Lord of the Rings a medievaloid setting because he wanted a legendary, almost mythic feel. Since then, a great many other writers have gone over the same ground simply because they wanted to use the same kinds of cool elements.

In some respects, it's easier to do something fresh when the clichés are so well canonized: you simply exploit or invert the clichés.

But at a deeper level, the setting is really a meta-character and requires the same care to avoid stereotypes as your other characters. In particular, the setting needs more of a reason for being than because it provides a stage and props. If you can take your medievaloid epic and turn it into a space opera by exchanging advanced technology for magic, you should ask yourself some hard questions about your setting and whether it's contributing to the task of giving us something new.

* Pun intended.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How to Understand Criticism

Writing Wednesday

A good friend was recently kind enough to read and comment on my manuscript. She also provided an editorial letter.

It's difficult, of course, to be told that your child isn't the most perfect in the world. It's equally difficult to hear that your manuscript could be improved.

As with most difficult things, one tends to go through the five stages of grief:

Denial - That's not a problem.
Anger - They missed the point.
Bargaining - If I made this small change, would that fix it?
Depression - I can never give them what they want.
Acceptance - Maybe I can if I work at it.

Others have observed the same pattern. What I want to point out is that understanding is usually a part of acceptance. I had a hard time reaching the stage of acceptance with some of the criticism because I didn't understand. Oh, I understood the words and the concepts behind them, but I didn't understand how to make the suggested changes.

And then, on the third morning, I woke up, reread the letter, and I understood. It felt like a miracle.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Writing is the process of encoding thought with marks on a page. Reading is the process of decoding marks on a page into thoughts. There's plenty of room for error in both processes. Because of that, understanding the thoughts of another and how they apply to your own thoughts is hard work. Fortunately, it's the perfect sort of work for your subconsciousness.

So, after all of that, here's the punch line: the best way to understand criticism is to study it and then sleep on it, perhaps for several nights. I suggest three nights because, according to School House Rock, three is a magic number.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

DC4W: Smile

Technique Tuesday

Continuing our on-going series on Dale Carnegie for Writers (DC4W), the second principle in the Six Ways to Make People Like You, the second section in How to Win Friends and Influence People, is, "Smile."

I scoffed the first time I heard that the phone company (yes, back when there was only one phone company) trained its operators to smile when they spoke with customers. "Why bother," I wondered, "when you can't see them?" (Yes, this was also before Skype and web-cams.) But I quickly learned that, because it changes the shape of the face and vocal tract, you really can hear a smile.

Smiles are inherently disarming. Anthropologists speculate that hominids showed their teeth without exposing their canines to signal non-aggressive interaction. As simple as it is, meeting someone with a smile immediately changes the tenor of the interaction.

"Okay," you say, "as an author, I can manage a smile when I'm in public."

That's a good start. Smile at everyone who comes to a signing, reading, or presentation. It's a small way to give honest, sincere appreciation to the people who have been generous enough to come.

But much of your time as an author will be solitary. Does the advice still apply?

First, and foremost, smiling even when there's no one else to see is good for your mental and physical well-being. This may sound strange, but not only do I feel better when I smile, it feels like the words come a bit easier. Clearly a smile by itself won't cure an illness, nor will it cause you to pour out a flawless novel. But like the old BASF* tag-line, while a smile won't make the thing for you, it will make it better.

Second, I believe readers can hear the smile (or its absence) in your writing. I'm not talking about overtly sunny writing: smiling doesn't mean you're limited to rainbows and ponies. We talk (often obsess) about Voice. Just like a spoken voice, I think a smile comes through as part of your written voice, particularly in terms of the enthusiasm with which you tell the story.

And if none of that moves you, at the very least you should practice smiling during the lonely hours so that when you must be seen in public your facial muscles will be able to manage more than a grotesque grimace that frightens children and small animals.**

*"At BASF, we don't make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better."
** Do you hear the smile behind this sentence?

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, July 26, 2010

Unpopular Virtues: Forgiveness

Making Monday

A willingness to forgive is often listed among the top Christian virtues. It's also a fundamental maker virtue.

"What," you may ask, "could a notion usually associated with ethics or theology have to do with making tings?"

First, consider what it means to forgive.

A simplistic definition might go along the lines of letting something pass. That's not entirely off the mark, but it does lack precision.

To forgive has a precise definition in accounting: when a debt is forgiven the accountant takes it off the books and expends no further effort tracking the amount. Expending no further effort is the key to understanding forgiveness on a practical level. In ethical terms, then, to forgive means that you stop carrying the burden of the injury.

"Fine," you may say, "but what does that have to do with making?"

Debugging, something you may have heard most often in the context of software development, is fundamentally the process of correcting the gap between your expectations and the reality of the thing you've made. Until such time as we possess enough magic or science to bring a thing into being the moment in which we conceive of it, the process of transforming raw material into a finished thing will take some amount of time. During that time, the thing being made will not meet your expectations because it's not finished. Some people find that gap supremely frustrating, even debilitating.

Put another way, in order to make, you must constantly forgive the thing for not yet being what you want it to become.

 Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, July 23, 2010

More on Devotion

Free-form Friday

As a confirmed centrist, I have no interest in partisan politics. I see the two major parties in U.S. politics as different sides of the same coin. That said, I'm going to make an observation that may sound partisan. I do this only because I think this illustrates a deeper principle.

President George W. Bush said he expected to be judged--and vindicated--by history. After all the noise and distractions have blown away, I believe history will find that Bush and his administration went astray because they placed too much faith in easy answers. For example, the premise for the war in Iraq seems to have been that if we take out the bad guy and his government, democracy, peace and freedom will flourish. Those two points may well be true, but as subsequent events have shown, the equation isn't that simple.

In contrast, some of the high points in U.S. history have come when people were willing to accept the hard answers and do what was necessary. For example, in the 2004 edition of Overrated/Underrated in American Heritage magazine, Michael Korda argues that Robert E. Lee is overrated and Ulysses S. Grant is underrated. Pay particular attention to what he says about Grant:
"[Grant] understood that it could not be done by successfully winning a battle, or even several battles (not that many Union generals were winning any until Vicksburg and Gettysburg), but that it depended strategically upon splitting the South by descending the great rivers deep into Confederate territory and, once that had been achieved, by forcing on the South a war of attrition that the Confederacy could not sustain—and also that, in the final analysis, the North’s superior manpower and industrial might would need to be brought to the battlefield. That the war would therefore be long and bloody, he accepted and persuaded Lincoln to accept, but it could be won that way and no other, and he knew how to do it. Lee is the more glamorous figure, but Grant was the better general, and what is more, he defined American generalship for all time. Eisenhower won the war in Europe by using Grant’s strategy and methods, and whenever America departs from Grant’s strategy, as in Korea, Vietnam, and, perhaps, Iraq, it pays the price. Our model, if we have to fight, should be Grant, not Lee."
Quality and integrity come only when we have the devotion, the courage, and the resolve to accept the hard answers and do what is necessary.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Mark Twain's Ten Rules for Writing: A Reader's Manifesto

Reading thuRsday

I came across Mark Twain's Ten Rules for Writing on Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project some time ago. I recommend "the rules" to all writers, not on Mark Twain's authority as a great writer, but on Samuel Clemen's ability to understand and articulate things that frustrate readers.
"Mark Twain divides his rules into large rules and little rules—all violated by James Fenimore Cooper:"
Large Rules
  1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
  2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.
  3. The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
  4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
  5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.
  6. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.
Little Rules
  1. An author should say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
  2. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
  3. Eschew surplusage.
  4. Not omit necessary details.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

How Much World Building is Enough?

Writing Wednesday

As with just about everything else related to writing, I think the answer depends on 1) what you need to feel confident in telling the story, and 2) what kind of story you're trying to tell.

The one non-negotiable requirement for fantasy is that you have to know all the details of the elements in your story that go beyond reality, and always follow the rules you establish for those elements (e.g., a magic system).

Beyond that, the level of detail in your history and landscape really does depend on the story. Narnia has a mythic (some might say doctrinal) context and so we neither know nor care about the succession of kings or their border squabbles. Lord of the Rings is about specific events in specific places and so the history is crucial. And in the Xanth novels, the history and landscape are little more than stage dressing.

In addition to the material your reader sees in the story, there's the question of what you need to tell your story confidently. Where writers of realistic stories can rely on common knowledge, the author of a fantasy has to work out what knowledge would be common among his characters. In one of my projects, I felt compelled to take my time-line back 5 billion years. I don't say that to boast, but to illustrate what I felt I needed to do to be able to tell the story with confidence.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

DC4W: Become Genuinely Interested in Other People

Technique Tuesday

Continuing our on-going series on Dale Carnegie for Writers (DC4W), the first principle in the Six Ways to Make People Like You, the second section of How to Win Friends and Influence People, is, "Become genuinely interested in other people."

One of the aphorisms my mother shared (repeatedly) with me was, "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."

Even though writing is mostly a solitary pursuit there are thousands of ways to become genuinely interested in other people.

Here are a few examples to get you started.

Fellow writers - get involved in local writing groups; listen to what other writers have to say; offer to read and comment on their manuscripts.

Authors - get to know the authors in your area and your genre; read their books; go to conferences and signings and meet them.

Professionals - get to know some publishing professionals. Blogs by agents, editors, and publishers are a great way to get at least some sense of who these people are, what they're interested in, and what concerns they have.

Like-minded People - Blogging: It's not about self promotion; find like-minded people on the Internet and listen to what they have to say; make helpful, constructive comments on their blogs; always invite people to participate in the blogs and forums you host.

Readers - every writer who hopes to get paid for their work should, at a minimum, be genuinely interested in their readers. You should spend a major portion of your outreach efforts trying to find out who they are and what they like.

And if you're not convinced that becoming genuinely interested in other people is the right thing to do in principle, consider this: all human groups have signs they use to distinguish members from non-members. While the specifics differ from group to group, knowing the names of key members is a nearly universal way to show that you're part of the group.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, July 19, 2010

Unpopular Virtues: Devotion

Making Monday

There is a line toward the end of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address that has always resonated with me:
"... from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion"
As language is a fluid thing, the word 'devotion' is commonly used to mean 'fervent admiration.' We've lost the older, more concrete sense of 'willing to do whatever is necessary.' Devotion, in the modern sense, has lost the selflessness implied in the older sense and has picked up a sense of selfishness: saying 'I'm devoted to something' focuses the emphasis on the 'I' and not the 'something.'

I mention devotions and the subtle changes in meaning because integrity in making comes from devoted makers. There are, for example, a great many writers who are devoted in the modern sense. But the best work comes from those devoted in the older sense.

Perhaps a clearer way to put it is that there comes a point in just about every human endeavor, writing included, where you have to answer the question: Is it about me or is it about the work?

Making is about devotion in its older sense. Makers are willing to do what needs to be done across the life cycle of the thing they're making. Consonant with self-less devotion, with a true maker, it's ultimately about the work.

 Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, July 16, 2010

Writers vs. Novelists

Free-form Friday

What are you? A writer? A novelist?

This may sound like a simple semantic quibble, but I want to suggest it's an important distinction.

I've heard people in the industry (e.g., published authors, agents, and editors) say they find it odd that no one who wants to be a musician believes they can do so without practice whereas many aspiring authors believe they can simply sit down and write the great American novel.

Could the problem stem from the fact that we call the endeavor writing? Viewed as the fundamental act of putting words together, writing is something most of us do on a daily basis (in one form or another). Couple that experience with nearly constant reading (again in one form or another), and it's not nearly so illogical for people to think they can write a novel. After all, they've been practicing putting words together most of their lives.

A novel, on the other hand, is a particular kind of long-form writing. The fundamental question for a novel is not can you write an interesting sentence or paragraph or chapter, but can you write an interesting book: can you sustain the level of story-telling for hundreds of pages?

I'm not saying that other forms of writing are less worthy or less ambitious--we need both the sonnet and the epic poem; the song and the symphony. What I am saying is that I think it helps us be clearer about the nature of our endeavor and the skill set we need to master if we think of ourselves as novelists instead of writers.

What do you think? Is the distinction useful or am I straining at a semantic gnat?

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Clever Characters

Reading thuRsday

In Orson Scott Card's book Characters and Viewpoint, he says the following about cleverness:

"Notice that I don't use the word intelligence. That's because in our society with its egalitarian ideals, any obvious display of intelligence or erudition suggests elitism, snobbery, arrogance."
"Yet we love a character who is clever enough to think of solutions to knotty problems. Does this seem contradictory? It is contradictory."
This is something that hits close to home for me. It took me a while to learn that my attempts to be precise and thorough were often off-putting in exactly the way Card describes.

I understand how critical it is to write in a way that's broadly accessible. But I prefer stories about smart people tested to their limits much more than stories about not-so-smart people whose problems are largely self-generated and could be avoided with a bit of sense.

For example, Jurassic Park would have been a far better cautionary tale without the sabotage subplot. Instead of showing that life can't be controlled by even the best and brightest among us, it suggest that it could have worked if people hadn't been greedy.

So what can you if you want characters that are both bright and likable?

Card's solution is:
"You have to walk a fine line, making [your character] very clever without ever letting [them] be clever enough to notice how clever [they] are."
What do you think?

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Writing and Writing

Writing Wednesday

I find myself putting a lot of time into my new project, but none of that time includes any writing. Instead, I'm doing a lot of writing, so I feel guilty.

I'm sure that sounds like a contradiction. Let me try to explain.

We've repeatedly heard advice to be disciplined: and write a certain amount each day. I have no trouble with the daily discipline, but I find it difficult to write a scene without a fair amount of preparation. I'm not talking about having a perfect writing environment. What I mean is that I've got to know my world and my characters well enough that I can proceed with confidence. So I spend a fair amount of time writing as I work out the details and relationships.

I've formatted the word write with bold and italics to distinguish two types of writing:
  1. writing for public consumption
  2. writing notes and essays to myself as I organize my thoughts

In Orson Scott Card's book, Characters and Viewpoint, he makes the case in chapter 2 that character and story development is about asking (and answering) questions like, What made this happen? What is the purpose? What is the result? What can go wrong? What I call type 2 writing is basically about asking and answering those questions in written form.

We all know (or have heard) of people who are always "writing" but never produce anything. At the other end of the spectrum we find people who dash of reams of scenes and dialog but never pull it all together into a coherent whole.

How do you strike the balance between preparing and producing?

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

DC4W: Arouse in the Other Person an Eager Want

Technique Tuesday

The third principle in the Fundamental Techniques in Handling People, the first section in Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, is, "Arouse in the other person an eager want."

I specifically wanted to comment on the way Carnegie's third general principal, "Arouse in the other person an eager want," applied to the query process.

Carnegie spends a fair portion of the chapter hammering home the point that other people couldn't care less about what you want. Uppermost in their minds in what they want. For example, he shares a letter from a freight company that details all the problems they had when customers delivered goods late in the afternoon and then suggests a better letter would concentrate on the benefits (i.e., no delays) that customers who could arrange to deliver their goods earlier in the day would enjoy.

So what does this have to do with querying?

According to Carnegie, the best way to get someone to do what you want is to show them that it is in line with something they want.

What do we want when we query?

To secure representation or publication.

What does the agent want?

A project that they can sell without too much effort.

Because there's no way to know what will sell, the best way we can give a prospective agent what they want is to make sure our project is a good fit and to follow their submission guidelines.

[If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in Professional Relationships, book 2 of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides.]
Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, July 12, 2010

Doing a Job Well

Making Monday

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were part of a literary group that met more or less weekly to discuss a number of things including their own literary projects. In a program about Lewis, one of the commentators said that the mental caliber of the group, all of them university professors, and the time they took working through each other's projects was one of the reasons that the works of both Tolkien and Lewis were of such high quality by the time they were published.

A while ago, I read the first volume in a new middle grade fantasy series. The book didn't have any glaring problems (although I did wince a couple of times), but I came away with the sense that it was about half as good as it could have been. I wonder how different the book might have been with more time and attention.

I understand the structural pressure arising from the fact that publishing is fundamentally a shotgun affair: reactions to books are so subjective that the only rational strategy is to publish a lot of titles in the hope that a few of them do well. It's a lot like the venture capitalists who assume that only one in ten of the companies in which they invest will succeed.

In software development, we often talk about 80/20 relationships: 80% of the project can be finished in 20% of the time, but the last 20% of the project will take the remaining 80% of the time. Since software and the business environment in which it is used are both liable to change, developers have come up with methods to get the 80% systems to the point where they can be used so that they decision to continue to invest is driven by business factors instead of the sunk cost of the development effort.

Makers aren't perfectionists but they're rarely satisfied with an 80% job. They believe that quality is a large part of integrity. All other things being equal, makers are more interested in doing a job well than simply getting it done.

 Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, July 9, 2010

What do you do to get past writer's block?

Free-form Friday

I write.

Generally, that means working on on back-story. And if that doesn't do the trick, I'll write something totally unrelated.

Writing is sometimes like a muscle. If left unused, the muscle atrophies until you're unable to use it even if you want to. One of the strategies of physical therapy is to move the muscle until it relearns its range of motion.* In a similar fashion, you need to keep putting words together until you are no longer conscious of the process if you've had a writing injury.

It's also necessary to understand that, fundamentally, the block is fear: fear that you'll write something wrong, or something that doesn't fit, or something that is not up to par with your previous efforts, or that no one likes, or that doesn't come close to the pictures in your head, or ... (you see how this list could go on indefinitely).

Fear is debilitating unless you can set it aside--not ignore it or wish it away, but set it aside. Acknowledge your fears and then move on.

The best way to overcome fear in writing is to plunge ahead, going boldly (not boldly going if you care about split infinitives), carried by the faith that at some point you'll look back on the trail of words in your wake and realize that it's pretty good stuff. I'm often pleasantly surprised when I look at something, after I've gotten a bit of distance from the piece, to find that it's better than I thought--not in the general sense that it's ready for public consumption but in the specific sense that my fears about the piece were unfounded.

* Physical therapy, for those of you who haven't enjoyed that particular experience, is mostly painful. After all, you're constantly pressing up against the limits created by your injury. Confronting the pain is an important part of getting past writer's block.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, July 8, 2010

How much do you have to read before you can write?

Reading thuRsday

This is another of life's catch-22s: the best way to be part of a conversation is to have something new to say, but to be sure that what you have to say is new you need to know the history of the conversation--which often means filling your head so full of other people's thoughts that you don't have anything new to say.

There was a sci-fi program in the 90s called Space: Above and Beyond. The producers were very proud of the fact that they'd gone out of their way to find writers who were not SF fans because they wanted new, fresh thinking. My impression as a viewer is that the writers generally succeeded in rediscovering territory that had already been explored. (The show lasted only a single season.)

It's difficult to do something new and meaningful if you're ignorant of the conversation. On the other hand, there's so much SF that you could spend your life trying to get through it all.

The trick is to strike a balance: your job isn't to become an expert on the literature but to be familiar with what your readers would consider the main works.

There's a nice analogy with travel. You're not trying to become a guide, but you should know the area well enough that you can get around without having to constantly ask for directions.

Like many other writing questions, this one comes back to one of the fundamental truths: you need to know your audience well enough to make your story compelling.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Linguistic Spices

Writing Wednesday

I occasionally see discussions about swearing, both in literature for young people and adults. I've seen some writers affirm their determination not to stoop to such things. After mulling over the issues, I hit upon the following analogy. I'd like to hear what you think.

Spices are an interesting sub category of food that, to the best of my knowledge, have the common property of a little working wonders in a dish but too much ruining everything.

It's an interesting analogy: used sparingly and purposefully, linguistic spices (of which objectionable language is a subset) can convey volumes. Consider a character established as proper throughout the story who loses their composure at a critical moment. Or a villain, who when unmasked, chooses to show his contempt with contemptible language.

The analogy also applies in terms of tastes: young people are often not ready for spices (my son hasn't yet learned to appreciate some of the things I enjoy after living in New Mexico). A good host should try to serve foods their guests will enjoy.

But I wouldn't want to clear out my spice rack because some of the items might not be appropriate everyone's tastes. Doing so would be as limiting as adding cilantro to everything because it's the fashionable ingredient.

The attribute that should distinguish those of us who call ourselves writers from other people who put words together is our ability to use language to achieve an intended effect. To that end we ought to master all the facets of our language so that we can write with intent and use the right ingredient for the job from a full, rich palette.

Image: Simon Howden /

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

DC4W: Give Honest and Sincere Appreciation

Technique Tuesday

Continuing with the Fundamental Techniques in Handling People, the first section in Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, the second principle is, "Give honest and sincere appreciation."

I made the case in our discussion of the first principle last week that as writers we must never feel as though we're entitled to attention (and publication) simply because we've written a book. If that idea is firmly established in your mind then you're well on the way to giving honest and sincere appreciation.

First, those of us who write (or attempt to write) are afforded a privilege denied to a substantial portion of the world's population: we have food, shelter, opportunity, and a sufficiently stimulating environment that collectively give us the ability to write and something interesting to write about.

Second, we have people around us who support our writing.

Third, in a world where a million other things compete for people's attention, there are the people who take their time to read what we write. To misappropriate Walt Whitman, no one is obliged to respond if we sound our "barbaric yop" across the world. That someone chooses to do so is a gift.

I doubt anyone would disagree that we, as writers, ought to give all these people our honest and sincere appreciation.

Even in the ultimately self-interested world of commercial publishing, the time and attention of a professional is something to be appreciated. A form rejection doesn't tell you much, but compared to silence it at least gives you some data on the people who may not respond to your work.

If, after all of this, you're still not convinced that giving honest and sincere appreciation is the right thing to do as a matter of principle, then consider this: all other things being equal, agents, editors, and even publishers will choose to do business with the author who comes across as pleasant and personable (because, believe it or not, those publishing industry professionals are human too). Giving honest and sincere appreciation is one of the most effective ways to be the author with whom they'll want to do business.

Image: luigi diamanti /

Monday, July 5, 2010

Making and Independence Day

Making Monday

Today is the federal holiday for yesterday's national holiday. Independence Day in the United States speaks to makers at several levels.

The city in which I live prides itself on its patriotism. Each year, the local luminaries put on a massive stadium show with celebrities, a military fly-over and a stunning firework finale.

I usually watch the fireworks from afar, but I've never gone to the stadium.


Because it's anti-climactic after the real celebration I attend about mid-day.

You see, there's an island of homes in the middle of our neighborhood. At noon, the children gather on decorated bicycles, scooters, and the occasional ridding lawn mower to parade around the loop. (Thanks to the older ones, it usually turns into more of a road rally.) Then we gather at the host homes, where the barbecues are going, for hot dogs, hamburgers, and neighborhood pot luck. That, more than the jets, the pop stars, and the fireworks, is what America is all about in my book.

Makers don't only make things, they make communities. After all, what is a community but a group of interacting people where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Which, in a larger sense is what the men who declared independence on (or around) July 4th and later crafted a constitution did too: they created a whole, a union, that is greater than the sum of its parts.

That's good making.

Image: Bill Longshaw /

Friday, July 2, 2010

Beware the Auto-Harvesters

Free-form Friday

Last Friday I posted a introduction to a new series of posts on how the principles Dale Carnegie discusses in How to Win Friends and Influence People are relevant to modern writers. Later that day, I received a notice from Google Alerts that a website/blog nominally devoted to Mr. Carnegie's works had posted a paragraph from the middle of my text.

Normally this wouldn't be a problem: the web is fundamentally about references and I have no problem with fair-use quotes. What troubled me is that even though the entry included a link back to my original post, the text they lifted from my piece was attributed to "Peter."

I poked around the site and decided it looked suspiciously like the work of either an auto harvester or a naive Australian blog user. While this minor misappropriation is fairly benign, it's worth pointing out that you should avoid sites built by auto-harvesters. They create the appearance of a portal or an aggregator but add no value. At best, these sites try to attract eyeballs for the adds running. At worst, you may find yourself in a den of mal-ware. Best to simply stay away.

As for the folks in Australia who picked up my post, if they're serious about reselling Dale Carnegie audio books they need to apply the first principle of the Six Ways to Make People Like You, "Become genuinely interested in other people," and take more care to acknowledge both the source and the author of the material they wish to quote.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

Thursday, July 1, 2010

First Impressions

Reading thuRsday

I went to a writing conference last fall and had a session with an agent where we went over the first page from everyone in the group. Of the nine first pages we read, there was only one the agent said didn't have too many problems.

Reflecting on that experience, I'm increasingly convinced that it was an exercise of limited utility: if you're looking for problems, you can likely find something in just about anyone's 250-word sample, particularly if you read it without any other context.

Clearly, first impressions matter. Readers won't keep reading if the story doesn't start in an interesting place. Indeed, readers won't even pick up the book if nothing about it piques their curiosity or stirs their interest. But first impressions only matter to a point.

Malcolm Gladwell argues for first impressions in his book Blink. He calls it "rapid cognition" (which sounds better than "go with your gut"), and claims that our first reaction is often the right one. I suspect this is the case for agents and editors when looking at bad writing. But I'm not so sure it's true for good writing: can you tell how good something is from a one-page sample?

What if you want to do something that plays off of first impressions? When the pilot for Babylon 5 aired, I read a review from a critic who called it a ho-hum, me-too space opera with over-the-top characterization: the villain and the comic relief character were obvious. But over the course of the series, those two characters (and all the others) developed in ways perfectly consistent with their behavior in the pilot that completely contradicted the critic's first impressions. The payoff only came for those willing to get past their first impressions.

So what does this mean?

Well, as readers, you must resist the temptation to assume you know what the books is about after you read the first page or the first chapter.

And as writers, we've got to make things compelling enough to carry people past their first impressions.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /